Spain’s Prime Minister has taken the stand as a witness in a corruption trial involving former members of his political party.
Mariano Rajoy denied any knowledge of an illegal financing scheme within the conservative People’s Party, amid allegations that cash donations from anonymous donors were used to fund election campaigns.
The 62-year-old, who was the party’s vice secretary general when the alleged slush fund was operating in the early 2000s, told Spain’s National Court he never dealt with financial matters.
Mr Rajoy, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, also denied ever taking illicit payments – and said any claims to that effect were “absolutely false”.
The court appearance is seen as a major embarrassment for Mr Rajoy, who is the first sitting prime minister in Spain to give evidence in a trial.
He had sought to testify via video link because he was busy and the security costs were a waste of taxpayers’ money, but the judges ordered him to come to the courthouse on the outskirts of Madrid.
The scandal has tainted the Popular Party at a delicate time, as Mr Rajoy no longer enjoys a majority in parliament.
Outside court, dozens of demonstrators shouted banners accusing the party of covering up corruption. They shouted “Justice! Justice!” as they brandished signs which read “mafia out, democracy in”.
Opposition parties have seized on Mr Rajoy’s court appearance to renew their attacks on the government over its handling of corruption.
Although rival groups have repeatedly called on the embattled leader to step down, past attempts to oust Mr Rajoy have been unsuccessful.
There are 37 defendants in the case – including two former party treasurers and businessman Francisco Correa, the alleged head of the network.
Correa faces a 125-year sentence if found guilty of controlling the network of aides and companies that arranged free events for the People’s Party in exchange for public contracts.
His main accomplice was allegedly Luis Barcenas, who was party treasurer for almost 30 years.
Barcenas, who was once close to Mr Rajoy, is accused of setting up a slush fund to top up the salaries of People’s Party leaders.
Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence, said: “Corruption issues will continue to put a ceiling on the PP’s electoral aspirations.
“While Mr Rajoy should be benefitting from Spain’s strong economic rebound, the ruling party has been losing support in the polls recently.”